Friday, September 29, 2023


Showing tomorrow on Turner Classic Movies, Dark Passage (1947):
This is the third and most heartfelt pairing of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall… quite a feat considering this film is even more firmly rooted in noir than their others. ....

The story begins with a prison escapee but one wrongfully convicted of murdering his wife. He’s hiding in a barrel leaving San Quentin on the back of a truck. Once he forcibly tilts the barrel out of the moving vehicle, we are Vincent Parry and see almost everything from his point of view. After finding his way back to the highway, he is offered a lift by a guy who asks too many questions and who in return, gets punched out by Vincent. Soon afterward he gets picked up by a gorgeous dame (Irene Jansen scrumptiously played by Bacall) who happened to be in the area painting. Now it’s Vincent’s turn to ask questions, but she seems sincere enough and willing to take some dangerous risks to keep him from being caught. ....

...Dark Passage is on solid noir ground, except for the main character: the wrongly accused Vincent Parry (played to melancholic but resilient perfection by Humphrey Bogart) who's hiding out in an unstable but atmospheric San Francisco. ....
The above description is excerpted and slightly modified from the one found here.

A film I have found very re-watchable.

Wednesday, September 27, 2023


Alan Jacobs on book banning in America:
danah boyd: “Over the last two years, I’ve been intentionally purchasing and reading books that are banned.” The problem here is that none, literally not one, of the books on the list boyd links to have been banned. Neither have they been “censored,” which is what the article linked to says. That’s why boyd can buy them: because they’ve been neither banned nor censored.

What has happened is this: Some parents want school libraries to remove from their shelves books that they (the parents) think are inappropriate for their children to read. You may think that such behavior is mean-spirited or otherwise misconceived — very often it is! — but has nothing to do with either banning or censorship.

But, of course, the American Library Association has been quite effective in redefining the words “banning” and “censorship” to include actions that are far less drastic — less drastic and not especially common: as Micah Mattix has documented here and here, there simply is no widespread movement to keep books off school library shelves. .... (more)

Alan Jacobs, "department of corrections," The Homebound Symphony, Sept. 27, 2023. 

Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Vermont in the Fall

Not a typical Hitchcock, but one of his favorite films, The Trouble with Harry (1955) is one of Hitchcock's few comedies. It's a good movie, set in New England in the Fall. And the Fall colors are great.
The kid is Jerry Mathers, later the Beaver.

Monday, September 25, 2023

Altar call

From Alan Jacobs today, an excerpt from one of his books that he has titled "my testimony":
.... The sermon eluded my attention, but I stood up with everyone else as the choir sang “Softly and Tenderly” — or perhaps it was “Just As I Am.” I was thirteen years old.

At that moment the Holy Spirit, with overwhelming force, called me to walk down the aisle and make my profession of faith. My will was clearly being commanded by something not me — something I knew could only be God. When, years later, I read John Wesley’s account of how in a meeting his heart was “strangely warmed,” I thought I knew just what he meant: I seemed for those moments to be heated from within. I had never experienced anything remotely like it before; nor, I must say, have I since. It was all I could do not to run down the aisle; but I did not run down the aisle. In fact, I remained fixed in my place. I stood as the choir and congregation sang, gripping the pew in front of me fiercely — I can see even now, in my mind’s eye, my knuckles going white with the effort of restraining myself from flying toward the pastor.

I was ashamed. I knew that I had paid no attention during the service, that I had snickered with my friends, and I feared their mocking judgment....

The following Sunday, as I walked once more with my parents into the church, a large banner outside proclaimed that the revival would begin that evening. Our pastor’s sermon topic, in his last message before the revival, was an interesting one: he said that sometimes God gives you only one chance to repent; we cannot presume upon his grace, we cannot count on His offering endlessly repeated opportunities to turn aside from our evil ways and dark paths. He told a story about a young man who rejected an opportunity to repent and was almost immediately thereafter struck by a car and killed — not as punishment, mind you: it was just that the fellow’s time was up, and he had wasted all of his chances. ....

At home, over lunch, I told my parents that I thought I would like to go to the revival that evening. They looked blankly at me. My father shrugged; my mother said, “Well, good for you.” I walked the eight blocks to the church, taking extreme care when crossing streets; I arrived early and took a seat on the right side, in the second row. I heard as little of this sermon as I had of the one preceding my unexpected Call, though for very different reasons. When the preacher began to intone the familiar words of invitation from what I now think of as the Southern Baptist revival liturgy — “with every head bowed and every eye closed” — and asked for a show of hands from those interested in repenting, my arm shot upward. At the first opportunity I bolted for the front. A few Sunday evenings later I was baptized.

And that was all. I had my insurance; if I wandered into the street and got hit by a car, I would be OK. Before long we stopped going to church. I gave God no thought for another six years. (more)

Sunday, September 24, 2023

A modern-day Robin Hood

Ten years ago I posted:
When in my early teens, having graduated from the Hardy Boys, I consumed the Saint books by Leslie Charteris. I have taken a break from other reading, seeking something undemanding, and chose to see whether I could, so many years later, still enjoy one of those books.
The first Saint I ever read was The Last Hero (1930). While visiting an uncle in Michigan I started reading the paperback, and when our family was about to leave, not having finished, I begged my uncle to let me have it (I was annoying that way). He did, recommending it, as I recall, as "good and bloody."

I own a lot of books. Mysteries have always been one of my enthusiasms and, having discovered an author I enjoy, my inclination has been to continue buying that author's books. I have collections of books by Allingham, Sayers, Buchan, Manning Coles, P.D. James, Elmore Leonard, R. Austin Freeman, Hammett, Dick Frances, John D. MacDonald, and, of course, Conan Doyle, among others. One of my bookcases is entirely devoted to those mysteries and similar genres. Those books, along with some historical fiction, are my primary reading escapism.

The top shelf of that bookcase contains some of my earliest acquisitions. This morning I noticed The First Saint Omnibus. It was an early collection of Leslie Charteris's Saint stories, chosen and with commentary by the author. It was published in 1941 and I must have bought it secondhand, but I don't recall when, or when I last opened it. Charteris published his first Saint book while at university in 1928 and continued until 1983, altogether almost one hundred books in the series. Most that I bought were paperbacks and are now long gone. This is the only Saint book I still have.

The first entry in the Omnibus is titled "The Man Who Was Clever" and begins:
MR "SNAKE" GANNING was neither a great criminal nor a pleasant character, but he is interesting because he was the first victim of the organization led by the man known as the Saint, which was destined in the course of a few months to spread terror through the under-world of London—that ruthless association of reckless young men, brilliantly led, who worked on the side of the Law and who were yet outside the Law. There was to come a time when the mere mention of the Saint was sufficient to fill the most unimaginative malefactor with uneasy fears, when a man returning home late one night to find the sign of the Saint—a childish sketch of a little man with a straight-line body and limbs, and an absurd halo over his round blank head—chalked upon his door, would be sent instinctively spinning round—with his back to the nearest wall and his hand flying to his hip pocket, and an icy tingle of dread prickling up his spine; but at the date of the Ganning episode the Saint had only just commenced operations, and his name had not yet come to be surrounded with the aura of almost supernatural infallibility which it was to earn for itself later. ....
I think I'll read a bit more.

Friday, September 22, 2023

A fish rots from the head first

Lance Morrow on "retcon": "retcon, in short, is an instrument for editing history to escape its inconvenient implications—its truth, if you insist, when applied to real life. It’s a sort of magic realism, an intellectual mulligan in the age of screens." From the essay:
.... It’s as if the 21st century itself came equipped with an enormous delete key, which, when you hit it, causes the former world to disappear. You may then fill up the empty screen with your own alternative reality.

Back in the Atlantis of 20th-century America, it was believed that there were two sexes, male and female. But 21st-century retcon (revisionism on LSD) tells us that you are whatever sex—or, rather, “gender”—you say you are. Marriage, which in the former world was between a man and a woman, may now be between a man and a man or a woman and a woman. The retcon of same-sex marriage, though highly improbable in the earlier context, has been widely accepted and has settled down, by and by, to become as orthodox and bourgeois as Ozzie and Harriet. Be careful, though: Retcon has a way of jumping the shark (destroying its own narrative by not knowing when to stop). Thus, the term “woman” is problematic, and we are no longer certain that such people exist, because to say so might insult the men who say they are women.

The old binaries were, so to speak, Newtonian. The new categories have all the nuance and unknowability of quantum mechanics. They are as whimsical as the moods of the Red Queen. The southern border is secure! It isn’t shoplifting, it’s social justice! Suicidal incompetence—say, by mayors of once-great cities—has yet a flickering aura of virtue about it: the valor of a lost cause.

America itself was formerly a good thing, more or less. “The last, best hope,” as Abraham Lincoln said. That was in the old dispensation. Retcon turns the narrative upside down. Retcon is pretty sure that Lincoln was a racist and that the U.S. is, if not evil, then at the very least wicked to the core: white supremacist and founded—as the New York Times states in its resounding retcon, the “1619 Project”—for the purpose of enslaving black people. ....

Retcon asserts “my truth” and rejects, as necessary, natural law. When out of control, it results in a Tower of Babel—a dynamic of madhouse democracy, as the Founders feared. A fish rots from the head first, and so does a country. Under a regime of pervasive untruth, the leaders become worse than their followers. We’re getting there.

Thursday, September 21, 2023

Because he is there

G.K. Chesterton:
We make our friends; we make our enemies; but God makes our next-door neighbour. Hence he comes to us clad in all the careless terrors of nature; he is as strange as the stars, as reckless and indifferent as the rain. He is Man, the most terrible of the beasts. That is why the old religions and the old scriptural language showed so sharp a wisdom when they spoke, not of one's duty towards humanity, but one's duty towards one's neighbour. The duty towards humanity may often take the form of some choice which is personal or even pleasurable. That duty may be a hobby; it may even be a dissipation. We may work in the East End because we are peculiarly fitted to work in the East End, or because we think we are; we may fight for the cause of international peace because we are very fond of fighting. The most monstrous martyrdom, the most repulsive experience, may be the result of choice or a kind of taste. We may be so made as to be particularly fond of lunatics or specially interested in leprosy. We may love negroes because they are black, or German Socialists because they are pedantic. But we have to love our neighbour because he is there—a much more alarming reason for a much more serious operation. He is the sample of humanity which is actually given us. Precisely because he may be anybody he is everybody. He is a symbol because he is an accident.
G.K. Chesterton, "On the Institution of the Family," Heretics, The Bodley Head, 1960.

Tuesday, September 19, 2023


C.S. Lewis on loving your neighbor as yourself:
Now that I come to think of it, I have not exactly got a feeling of fondness or affection for myself, and I do not even always enjoy my own society. So apparently "Love your neighbour" does not mean "feel fond of him" or "find him attractive." I ought to have seen that before, because, of course, you cannot feel fond of a person by trying. Do I think well of myself, think myself a nice chap? Well, I am afraid I sometimes do (and those are, no doubt, my worst moments) but that is not why I love myself. In fact it is the other way round: my self-love makes me think myself nice, but thinking myself nice is not why I love myself. So loving my enemies does not apparently mean thinking them nice either. That is an enormous relief. For a good many people imagine that forgiving your enemies means making out that they are really not such bad fellows after all, when it is quite plain that they are. Go a step further. In my most clear-sighted moments not only do I not think myself a nice man, but I know that I am a very nasty one. I can look at some of the things I have done with horror and loathing. So apparently I am allowed to loathe and hate some of the things my enemies do. Now that I come to think of it, I remember Christian teachers telling me long ago that I must hate a bad man's actions, but not hate the bad man: or, as they would say, hate the sin but not the sinner.

For a long time I used to think this a silly, straw-splitting distinction: how could you hate what a man did and not hate the man? But years later it occurred to me that there was one man to whom I had been doing this all my life namely myself. However much I might dislike my own cowardice or conceit or greed, I went on loving myself. There had never been the slightest difficulty about it. In fact the very reason why I hated the things was that I loved the man. Just because I loved myself, I was sorry to find that I was the sort of man who did those things. Consequently, Christianity does not want us to reduce by one atom the hatred we feel for cruelty and treachery. We ought to hate them. Not one word of what we have said about them needs to be unsaid. But it does want us to hate them in the same way in which we hate things in ourselves: being sorry that the man should have done such things, and hoping, if it is in any way possible, that somehow, sometime, somewhere, he can be cured and made human again.
C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, Geoffrey Bles, 1952, Book III, Chapter 7.

Monday, September 18, 2023

Old friends

I found this affecting. Patrick Kurp quotes a letter Samuel Johnson wrote upon discovering the death of a man who had been a friend for a very long time:
When I came to Lichfield, I found my old friend Harry Jackson dead. It was a loss, and a loss not to be repaired, as he was one of the companions of my childhood. I hope we may long continue to gain friends, but the friends which merit or usefulness can procure us, are not able to supply the place of old acquaintance, with whom the days of youth may be retraced, and those images revived which gave us the earliest delight.
9/21 - I improved the post title.

Saturday, September 16, 2023

Ambition and truth

Romney's decision not to run for reelection led Richard Brookhiser to reflect on the ambitions of John Quincy Adams:
JQA left his and his father’s party, the Federalists, when they took the pox of disunion during the Jefferson and Madison administrations. This partisan defection served his ambition, because his new (first) Republican Party friends were political winners.

But by 1820 he saw another emerging cadre of potential disunionists: southern slaveowners. In a March 3, 1820, conversation with fellow cabinet member John Calhoun (JQA was SecState, Calhoun SecWar), Calhoun told him that slavery “had many excellent qualities.... It was the best guarantee to equality among the whites.” JQA was shocked, not least because he respected Calhoun so highly. If this was what his colleague thought, his fellow southerners must think the same. Maybe, JQA wondered in his diary that night, the country should break up then, since it was bound to anyway.

But he had to become president first. Ambition took precedence over prophecy. By hook and by crook he beat Calhoun, Henry Clay, William Crawford, and Andrew Jackson for the White House in 1824. He had a plan to forestall the crisis — govern as a nationalist — but he kept his motives well concealed.

JQA lost his reelection bid in 1828, crushingly, to Jackson, whom he considered a barbarian. He sulked for a few years, even angling for the Anti-Masonic Party nomination in 1832. (He offered to reveal the secrets of Phi Beta Kappa; the Anti-Masons weren’t interested.) Then he got elected to a safe seat in the House.

Having nowhere else to go, he could finally speak the truth. ....

Friday, September 15, 2023

Up to a point

This looks promising: Fusion: In the Tradition of Liberty. From an essay by Ryan T. Anderson at that site:
If we don’t want people souring on religious liberty and free speech, then we had better explain those limits. Instead, we see some on the Right embracing libertine libertarianism—support for license in the name of liberty. The most thoughtful libertarians agree that liberty needs limits. But apart from some liberty-maximizing procedural principle of protecting the maximum amount of individual liberty consistent with the same liberty for others, they have no substantive limiting principle. Some proclaim that the freedom to swing my arm ends at your nose—the so-called harm principle. But how about the freedom to twerk in front of children or help patients commit suicide? Apart from a theory of the good, it’s hard to have a theory of harm.

Rightly rejecting libertinism, others on the Right veer toward authoritarianism. They focus so much on the good they seek to promote that they overlook or downplay the contribution that liberty itself makes to the common good. Our task is to defend liberty and limits without embracing libertinism or authoritarianism. Conservatives used to know this. In his 1983 classic, Statecraft as Soulcraft, George Will argued that “The most important four words in politics are ‘up to a point.’” He went on to explain: “Are we in favor of free speech? Of course—up to a point. Are we for liberty, equality, military strength, industrial vigor, environmental protection, traffic safety? Up to a point.” Just so. ....

Liberty’s defenders need to see that liberty isn’t the only thing that needs defending, including in law. Defenders of liberty also need to be defenders of true norms of justice and the common good—including public morality. No political community can sustain itself, especially across the generations, without attending to the moral character of the people. So while liberty matters a great deal, it’s not the only thing that matters.

We should not flinch from promoting true norms of public morality out of fear of “imposing our morality on others.” All coercive laws “impose” morality on citizens, if that means regulating people’s conduct in the name of a particular vision of human goods and harms, and moral rights and wrongs. This is true of property-rights enforcement just as much as wealth redistribution. The question isn’t whether law will reflect an understanding of the human good—a moral vision. It’s whether law will reflect sound morality. Moral neutrality is impossible. Relativism is untenable. ....

Liberty’s defenders must also defend the civil society institutions and practices that shape people toward true freedom. None of us is born ready for liberty. We have to be trained to exercise responsible self-government as members of families no less than of states. To distinguish liberty from license in our personal lives—and live out that distinction, by using freedom for excellence—is essential. For the best laws in the world are insufficient if people cannot exercise freedom responsibly. And, again, the Founders got there first, recognizing that our Constitution was made for a moral and religious people. .... (more)
This seems very Burkean:
Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites, — in proportion as their love of justice is above their rapacity, — in proportion as their soundness and sobriety of understanding is above their vanity and presumption, — in proportion as they are more disposed to listen to the counsels of the wise and good, in preference to the flattery of knaves. Society cannot exist, unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere; and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.
(Edmund Burke, Letter to a Member of the National Assembly, May 1791)

Will the tide turn?

From a review of The Surprising Rebirth of Belief in God (by Justin Brierley with a foreward by N.T. Wright):
...[T]he implosion of the New Atheism was more than just an ironic farce. It revealed an important fallacy. The movement exalted science as the replacement for religion. But whereas science can tell us about physical reality, it cannot be a guide to moral values, as the atheist schism itself demonstrates.

The New Atheism had unintended consequences. “I thank God for Richard Dawkins,” says Brierley. “New Atheism has revitalized the intellectual tradition of the Christian church in the West.”

The church, he says, had been woefully unprepared for this frontal attack on the faith. “With the four horsemen at their heels, the church was forced to put down its tambourines and guitars and pick up its history and philosophy books again.” As a result, “Arguably, the last two decades have seen the greatest revival of Christian intellectual confidence in living memory as the church has risen to the challenge.” ....

Whereas the New Atheists insisted that religion is the source of everything bad in the world, recent historical research has proved the opposite. Classicist Tom Holland documented the casual and pervasive cruelty of the Greeks and Romans, who considered pity to be a weakness and who most emphatically did not believe in the innate human dignity of all. His book Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World shows that beliefs such as the equal worth of all human beings and our duty to help the vulnerable cannot be found in the ancient world—or anywhere else, really, much less as a result of naturalistic evolution—and are unique to Christianity, which has spread them even to the secularists. This has powerful apologetic implications. When the New Atheists bring up atrocities committed by Christians—at which the ancient Greeks and Romans would not have batted an eye—they are appealing to a distinctly Christian ethic! Those who criticize the ethics of the Bible are presupposing the ethics that the Bible has given them! Similarly, when progressives demand social justice, racial equality, the rights of women, and respect for the marginalized, they are drawing on the Christian heritage they tend to repudiate. .... (more)

Wednesday, September 13, 2023

'The Chosen'

I haven't watched The Chosen primarily because I'm a bit cynical about films that intend to send a message. (Samuel Goldwyn supposedly said, "If You Have a Message, Send It by Western Union.") Perhaps I should reconsider. Kevin Williamson writes "The Chosen Is ‘Message’ Entertainment Done Right":
There isn’t any way to make a series about the life and career of Jesus that keeps religion at arm’s length (it would be a mistake even to try, I think) but what The Chosen gets right is that what it communicates is a Christian sensibility rather than dogma, theology, or other subjects best left to formal religious instruction per se. It begins with a Jesus and a Jesus movement that are distinctly Jewish and distinctly more than Jewish, a Jesus and an emerging faith that often do not solve followers’ here-and-now problems but instead add significantly to them, putting them at odds with political power, civic and religious authorities, their own friends and families, their own material and social self-interests. Set aside the religious significance of that for the moment and appreciate that this is why The Chosen works as drama rather than as evangelism or apologetics. The Chosen is in fact at its best when it is at its least sentimental and its least comforting. And at its best, The Chosen is very good. (more)

Tuesday, September 12, 2023

When trav’ling days are over

Mom's favorite hymn:

Sing the wondrous love of Jesus,
Sing His mercy and His grace;
In the mansions bright and blessed
He’ll prepare for us a place.
Let us then be true and faithful,
Trusting, serving every day;
Just one glimpse of Him in glory
Will the toils of life repay.
   When we all get to Heaven,
   What a day of rejoicing that will be!   
   When we all see Jesus,
   We’ll sing and shout the victory!
Onward to the prize before us!
Soon His beauty we’ll behold;
Soon the pearly gates will open;
We shall tread the streets of gold.
While we walk the pilgrim pathway,
Clouds will overspread the sky;
But when trav’ling days are over,
Not a shadow, not a sigh.

Saturday, September 9, 2023

Leaving Twitter

Alan Jacobs has deactivated his X (formerly Twitter) account for reasons I find persuasive. I just did too. Nick Catoggio writing at The Dispatch explains at greater length:
“Musk is just a guy who says things,” writes Jonathan Last. “Sometimes for attention. Sometimes because he’s mad. Sometimes because he’s high. None of it means anything. Don’t take him literally or seriously.” I think that’s almost right.

Not taking him seriously is the part that’s wrong. The erratic way in which Musk rules his empire, replete with his suspicious solicitousness toward some of the worst people on earth, turns out to have real consequences for our empire. To some extent, we’re all prisoners of his caprice.

There’s now reason to believe innocent people have died needlessly because of it. .... (more)

Thursday, September 7, 2023

Mr. Standfast

I think it was one of my high school English teachers who suggested that I might enjoy John Buchan's thrillers. I'm sure the first I read was The Thirty-Nine Steps. I've enjoyed all of Buchan's books that I've read, although accommodation must sometimes be made for prejudices I do not share. When I was trying to come up with an email address years ago my eyes fell on the spine of this book, thus "mrstandfast."  I later learned that Buchan was also enjoyed by C.S. Lewis and his brother. From a description of the book at the site of the John Buchan Society:
With The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915) and Greenmantle (1916) this novel makes the third of a trilogy on aspects of the First World War. Buchan’s History of the War afforded him inside knowledge that fed his novels with realism, to which he added the spice of imagination. (In 1917 he was Director of the Department of Information, in 1918 Director of Intelligence in the Ministry of Information.)

His tale moves swiftly. The scene changes purposefully through London, a fictional Home Counties location, Glasgow, the Highlands and Islands, and Switzerland to prepare the way for a climax in the great German offensive of March 1918 – Ludendorff’s last, almost successful gambler’s throw.

Buchan’s description of the accompanying artillery barrage is ominously and compellingly realistic: you hear the low thunder of the encroaching guns. And the allied trenches provide a dramatic setting for the death of the spy hunted by Richard Hannay and his little team of counterspies.

The threat from pacifism which was a genuine feature of the war years gives the spy his cover; there is a space for Red Clydeside; the submarine menace is used in an unexpected way; some Highland local colour is apt for the period but also for the people described; and generally the characters present a wide spectrum of wartime life.

Hannay has something of the now conventional amateur who beats the professionals at their own game. .... (more)
Mr Standfast is in the public domain in the US and can be read here. It is also in print.

Wednesday, September 6, 2023

St. Mary Mead

I do really like this sort of thing. A poster at Facebook's "Golden Age Detection" group came across this map. Agatha Christie's Miss Marple lived in St. Mary Mead.

Sunday, September 3, 2023

A fantasy that endures because of its realism

J.R.R. Tolkien died on September 2nd fifty years ago. From "Tolkien’s Biblical Epic," yesterday in The Wall Styreet Journal:
.... To understand the enduring enchantment of Tolkien’s works, one must comprehend a central feature of his life that the 2019 biopic Tolkien largely chose to ignore: his Catholic faith.

If sales of The Lord of the Rings rival those of the Bible itself, it is because the series offers a profoundly biblical view of the world. The reality and consistency of human sin described in Genesis is a central theme throughout Tolkien’s books. Sauron’s ring, rightly understood, is much more than a “MacGuffin”—an object whose only importance is that it helps move the plot forward. Rather, the ring is one of the true characters of the novel, representing sin and its many temptations.

The moral fragility of humanity is made manifest in the ways that some characters give in to those temptations. Yet others are able to resist them. Redemption ultimately comes to Middle-Earth through Aragorn, the descendant of a long-lost line of kings—a clear reference to the biblical story of David and to Isaiah’s guarantee that David’s heir will one day redeem the world. Christians like Tolkien identify this prophesied descendant as Jesus, though Aragorn more closely resembles the Jewish conception of the messiah as a great warrior-king. ....

Faithful Jews and Christians believe, in different ways, in the ultimate “return of the king.” But we also believe that we are called to live courageously in a world where that has not yet occurred. In one of the best-known scenes from the book and the film, Frodo ruefully wishes that he lived in a time before the ring was rediscovered; before evil made itself so profoundly manifest. “So do I,” Gandalf replies, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

This advice given by a wizard to a hobbit offers a succinct summation of what the Bible communicates to humanity and what has sustained men and women of faith in some of the darkest of times. Fifty years after Tolkien’s passing, the series that helped create the fantasy genre endures because of its realism. (more)

Saturday, September 2, 2023

"All work and all workers deserve honor"

On Labor Day weekend I return to Gene Edward Veith's explanation of "vocation," once posted on his blog (the link I originally used no longer works):
.... The word is simply the Latinate term for “calling.” Perhaps the best summation of the concept is in 1 Corinthians 7:17: “Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him.”

God “assigns” different kinds and places of service for each Christian and then “calls” each Christian to that assignment. The Reformation theologians fleshed out this concept with other biblical teachings about God’s workings in society and the Christian’s life in the world (e.g., Ephesians 5:6, Romans 12:13, 1 Corinthians 7).

The great theologian of vocation was Martin Luther, who developed the teaching in his battles with monasticism—the view that the spiritual life requires withdrawal from secular life—and in defining “the priesthood of all believers.”

For Luther, vocation, like justification, is ultimately God’s work. God gives us our daily bread through the vocations of the farmer, the miller, and the baker. God creates new human beings through the vocations of fathers and mothers. God protects us through lawful magistrates.

Vocation is, first of all, about how God works through human beings. In His providential care and governing of His creation, God chooses to distribute His gifts by means of ordinary people exercising their talents, which themselves are gifts of God.

Thus, God heals by means of doctors, nurses, and other medical vocations. He makes our lives easier by means of inventors, scientists, and engineers. He creates beauty by means of artists, authors, and musicians. He gives us clothing, shelter, and other things we need by means of factory workers, construction contractors, and others who work with their hands. He cleans up after us by means of janitors and garbage collectors.

God thus looms behind everyone who provides us with the goods or services that we need. In one of Luther’s many memorable lines, God milks the cows through the hands of the milkmaid. This means that all work and all workers deserve honor. Whereas the world might look down on milkmaids and garbage collectors, they actually bear the sacred presence of God, who works in and through them.

God created us to be dependent on others—meat processors, manufacturers, journalists, lawyers, bankers, teachers, parents—and, through them, we are ultimately dependent upon God Himself.

Just as God is working through the vocation of others to bless us, He is working through us to bless others. In our vocations, we work side-by-side with God, as it were, taking part in His ceaseless creative activity and laboring with Him as He providentially cares for His creation. ....

Thursday, August 31, 2023

“Truth, Justice and the American Way”

From "The death of Superman: How Hollywood killed the American hero":
Something has been absent in recent times in the adaptation of film and art — the idea of a fundamentally American hero. Superman, as a character, is ultimately about why America is good, and Hollywood simply does not believe America is a force for good. ....

Americans do not think of themselves as sharing a common enemy, as they did during the Cold War. Hollywood won’t portray radical Islam in film due to cultural and media sensitivities. China fills a natural role, but thanks to the growing market overseas for films, Hollywood is capitulating to them politically by offering alternative edits to their films and even going as far as having Chinese state officials on set, as Marvel did with Iron Man 3 and others. On issues of race, policing, gender and politics, Hollywood takes a progressive posture. ....

...Hollywood has the very idea of Superman backwards. Superman knows what American exceptionalism is; Hollywood and our media struggle with accepting the same idea. Instead they view him as a symbol of imperialistic and misguided patriotic propaganda, and therefore, he must be reinvented, re-imagined and rewritten. ....

...[T]o ignore the American propaganda aspect of Superman and similar comic heroes is to betray their entire reason for being. The character’s co-creator Jerry Siegel enlisted in the United States military in 1943. He was trained as both a skilled mechanic and as a reporter for Stars and Stripes. The character of Superman himself was published primarily as American military propaganda, with the character routinely foiling Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin.

The world may have changed around him, but Superman is constant, and should be understood as the quintessential American hero. It is not Superman who struggles with his identity. He knows what his purpose is. Despite its failings, America is a global force for good, like Superman. We struggle, we falter, but our ideals remain a constant. They are everlasting. It’s not Superman and America who need to be re-imagined. It’s Hollywood. (more)
Stephen L. Miller, "The death of Superman," The Spectator, August 30, 2023.

A relaxing and boring life

The Free Press sponsored an essay contest for high school students and received hundreds of submissions. The winner is a home-schooled seventeen year-old. It is titled "A Constitution for Teenage Happiness." From the essay:
When people ask me why I sacrificed the sociable, slightly surreal daily life at my local school for the solitary life of a home-schooled student in 2021, I almost never reveal the reason: an absence of books.

For many students, books are irrelevant. They “take too long to read.” Even teachers have argued for the benefits of shorter, digital resources. Last April, the National Council of Teachers of English declared it was time “to decenter book reading and essay writing as the pinnacles of English language arts education.”

But what is an English education without reading and learning to write about books?

Many of our English teachers instead encouraged extemporaneous discussions of our feelings and socioeconomic status, viewings of dance videos, and endless TED Talks. So five days into my sophomore year, I convinced my mother to homeschool me. ....

Students and teachers are more exhausted and fragile than they used to be. But reducing homework or gutting it of substance, taking away structure and accountability, and creating boundless space for “student voices” feels more patronizing than supportive. The taut cable of high expectations has been slackened, and the result is the current mood: listlessness.

Like human happiness, teenage happiness does not flourish when everyone has the freedom to live just as they please. Where there is neither order nor necessity in life—no constraints, no inhibitions, no discomfort—life becomes both relaxing and boring....

So, here is my counterintuitive guide for teenage happiness: (the essay)
Ruby LaRocca, "A Constitution for Teenage Happiness," The Free Press, August 31, 2023.

Tuesday, August 29, 2023


I retired from teaching—mostly high school social studies—in 2005. Today I rediscovered a folder of materials I had accumulated over those 35 years: pictures, evaluations by administrators and students, cards and letters from former students, etc. This was delivered by a colleague on the occasion of my retirement.
Mr. Skaggs is the epitome of grace and gentility. Debonair and comfortable whether wearing proletarian denim or a three piece suit, Mr. Skaggs has earned his legendary status as a member of our excellent, eccentric, and enigmatic faculty: only at Memorial can a Reagan Republican be elected president of a union. His American Experience course rigorously teaches students about the rise of modern dictatorships, the causes of World War II, the terror and intrigue of the Cold War, and, also, about the dissolution of The Band, which celebrated its last concert with a four hour video. A connoisseur of Cuban cigars and single-malt scotch, Skaggs' favorite lunch is two hot dogs, fries, and plenty of ketchup. Mr. Skaggs takes religion seriously. God has posited him in our midst as a role model: if you don't curse, don't lose your temper, if you treat others with respect, and if you get enough kids to pray at the flagpole, you too can grow old without getting fat or going bald.
The photo is from an in-service in 2001.

Sunday, August 27, 2023

Reading Tolkien

I have accumulated several editions of The Lord of the Rings over the years. I regret that I no longer have the paperbacks that were my introduction to the book, but they were pretty tattered by the time I retired them. My next earliest purchase, while in college, was the 1967 hardbound, three volume, "revised" edition from Houghton Mifflin. I later bought two, rather nice, single volume editions. One is illustrated by Alan Lee. I don't think I have actually read either — they are heavy and awkward to hold for very long. My favorite reading edition is The Lord of the Rings: Millennium Edition, boxed, in seven volumes. I bought it before the first of the Peter Jackson films so that I could comfortably carry and re-read Tolkien on the city bus traveling to and from school.

Each book in the set is one of the six often combined, two to a volume, in the "trilogy." The books here are: The Ring Sets Out, The Ring Goes South, The Treason of Isengard, The Ring Goes East, The War of the Ring, The End of the Third Age, and then a seventh book for the "Appendices." 

The time will come when I will need to reduce the size of my collection. Among those books that I neither sell nor give away will be the 1967 trilogy and this set.

Friday, August 25, 2023

"Bond, James Bond"

In the early '60s I read that JFK's favorite books were Ian Fleming's James Bond thrillers. I wasn't a fan of JFK but I did like mysteries, thrillers, and spy novels. I spent a summer between high school semesters buying and reading them, eventually all thirteen. (I no longer own any.) Later, with friends, I went to the movies (the books are better). This year is the seventieth anniversary of the publication of the first book: Casino Royale. From The Spectator last spring:
The Bond saga started on the morning of 17 February. After breakfast, Fleming closed the living-room door and wooden shutters, sat at his roll-top desk, uncovered his old Imperial typewriter, squared the ream of folio typing paper he’d bought on Madison Avenue, and started to write.

Every day for seven weeks, from 9 a.m. to noon, the tacketa-tacketa of the typewriter resounded through the beach house like gunfire. He made no outline of a plot or cast of characters (he took his hero’s name from the author of a book his eye fell on, A Field Guide to Birds of the West Indies) but typed on like a man under orders to create. At noon, he’d sunbathe, eat lunch, sleep and, at 5pm, read what he’d written before placing it in a blue folder. At 6:30, it would be time for cocktails.

When the routine ended on 18 March, he’d written 62,000 words and invented a new kind of thriller: coldly, humourlessly narrated, speedily efficient, machine-tooled in its treatment of action, violence and sex, and with a central role for someone he firmly believed himself to be. ....

Casino Royale introduced the world’s readers to exotic phenomena that would become as familiar as their families. To Bond himself, tall, dark-haired, laconic, habitually treating his body, and his brain, as machines to be kept in top condition; to Bond’s special brand of cigarettes, ‘a Balkan and Turkish mixture made for him by Morlands of Grosvenor Street,’ to his apartment in Chelsea and his car, a four-and-a-half-litre 1933 Bentley coupé ‘with the supercharger by Amherst Villiers.’ And to the first Bond girl, Vesper Lynd, described by the callow Frenchman Mathis as having ‘black hair, blue eyes and splendid… er… protuberances.’

Readers also had their first sighting of M’s secretary, charmlessly described thus: ‘Miss Moneypenny would have been desirable but for eyes which were cool and direct and quizzical’ (poor girl!). They could gaze in horror at the first Bond villain, Le Chiffre, a mystery man who wears his hair villainously en brosse, a sadist, flagellant and Russian agent, and embezzler of union funds that he seeks to recoup at the Royale casino. And they met Bond’s gruff, omniscient boss M, head of the British Secret Service, after he’d been told of the plan to “ridicule and destroy” Le Chiffre at the casino by making him lose 50 million francs. ....

Casino Royale was published by Jonathan Cape seventy years ago on 13 April, 1953, to mostly glowing reviews. In the Times Cyril Ray wrote, ‘If Mr. Fleming’s next story has half the swiftness of this, as astringent an accent, and a shade more probability, we can be certain that he is the best new thriller-writer since [Eric] Ambler.’ .... (more)
John Walsh, "How boredom begat James Bond," The Spectator, April 15, 2023.

Tuesday, August 22, 2023

I can remember...

This reminded me of the annual summer trips to West Virginia to visit the grandparents in the 1950s:
Signs announcing roadside picnic tables once peppered America’s secondary roads and highways. Or so we call those byways now. Before the limited-access interstate system arrived in the 1960s, these roads were primary. America then was laced with a tangle of serviceable two-lane, hard-surfaced highways. .... Some roads were federal, some state, but all were emphatically open-access: get on anywhere, pull over wherever you like. They led through cities and towns, not around them; they traversed the countryside more than they cut through it. ....

For middle- or working-class families, “vacation” meant loading up the family’s one and only car with suitcases and picnic supplies and heading off — to the beach or the mountains or to the grandparents’ house. Cars were big and roomy and seldom air-conditioned, with plenty of room for two parents and two brothers, with space reserved in the trunk, or in the well behind the second seat if it was a station wagon, for some simple groceries and a cooler.

Millions of American families have their own memories of those journeys and the road fare that accompanied them. .... The morning of departure, ice cubes from the small freezer compartment of the kitchen fridge were tumbled into the bottom, followed by small cans of fruit juice, V-8 and orange-pineapple. Bottled water was unheard of and soft drinks were a special treat, bought for a dime in glass bottles from a gas station vending machine. At the top of the cooler was a fitted metal tray that suspended food to be kept cool and dry: hardboiled eggs, sliced bologna or some other luncheon meat (maybe cold chicken the first day out). There were green grapes, a jar of French’s yellow mustard, a knife for spreading, a church-key for opening. If mother had made sandwiches ahead of time, they were, in that pre-baggie era, wrapped in cellophane. A paper grocery bag held white Sunbeam or Wonder Bread, a box of Triscuits, paper napkins, picnic-size salt and pepper for the eggs while they lasted. ....

The interstates, which have so speeded travel times and without which many would find driving unthinkable, have also stolen our experience of pretty much anything that lies between our points of departure and arrival. The roadside table is one casualty. ....
Peter and Timothy Jacobson, "Road-trip picnics are a casualty of our interstate system," The Spectator, August 2023.

Sunday, August 20, 2023

A spy novel

Enjoyed re-reading this essay about Erskine Childers and his only novel:
The period of the First World War was a golden age for the spy novel. There’s nothing like a really cataclysmic global conflict to stir any halfway attentive author.

And perhaps the pick of the literary crop was 1903’s The Riddle of the Sands, by the Anglo-Irish writer, soldier, and politician Erskine Childers. The novel mixes some gentle satire about the graded snobberies of the Edwardian class system with a seafaring adventure involving a couple of topping British chaps going after German spies in the Baltic. It’s not only a riveting tale in itself, but so cogent in its account of the state of Britain’s maritime defenses that it prompted the Admiralty to hurriedly install a series of new coastal gun batteries. Childers’s book was an instant bestseller, and still ticks over today. No less a judge than Ken Follett has called it “the first modern thriller.” If you want a really gripping read, with plenty of white-knuckle action, some energetically sustained period idiom, and the mass of verifiable detail later found in the James Bond novels, The Riddle is for you.

Ironically, about the one person seemingly unmoved by the book’s success was Childers himself. Aged 33 at the time of its publication, he never wrote another novel....

I've also enjoyed the movie with Michael York, Jenny Agutter, and Simon MacCorkindale. It can be found at Amazon, and on Amazon Prime.

Christopher Sandford, "The spy novelist who became an Irish nationalist," The Spectator, Nov. 23, 2022.

Friday, August 18, 2023

Ahead of the game

Patrick Kurp, in 'We Are So Lucky Having English,' quotes an English poet, John Whitworth:
Shakespeare. Browning. Wallace Stevens. Stevens is surprising. He surprises me, actually. Language, don’t you know. What language can do. We are so lucky having English. We might be stuck with French with a tiny Latinate vocabulary. Or Swedish, a language nobody else knows. English is like Ancient Greek, all the words, all those different ways of saying.... I used to teach English to foreigners and it is hard. We are lucky — English, Aussies, Americans, because it’s not hard for us. We’re ahead of the game.
A German exchange student I once had in class disagreed. I had suggested that English was a difficult language to learn. He thought not.

Thursday, August 17, 2023

I wanted reasons

I received James Como's Mystical Perelandra two days ago. In his first chapter, he describes his discovery of C.S. Lewis, a discovery that feels very much like my own and also, I'm sure, the experience of many others:
.... I have always been an argumentative person, even as a child. I wanted reasons, and if they came my way I would question them. And, my goodness, could Lewis argue! He broke down an adversary's ideas to their underlying assumptions, often unexamined and false, confronted counter-arguments, then eventually, after what his friend Owen Barfield would later call "dialectical obstetrics," nailed down his point. So the very first, and enduring attraction, was intellectual.

Then came imaginative propulsion. That began with The Great Divorce, combining fantasy, the psychology of sin, and argument. Soon I made the voyage to Malacandra, that is, Mars, in Out of the Silent Planet: greater fantasy, astonishing literary psychology (Lewis knew his readers' expectations and played upon those keys like a virtuoso), and — argument. But in this case, there was also a design that invited participation, a puzzle to be solved, a correspondence. And so entered Myth, a story that "could have been historical fact" but, even if not, so conveyed a truth, or a collection of truths, that it was not only compelling but convincing: yes, one could say, I see how those truths hang together.

Next came holiness. Perelandra proved irresistible, as narrative, argument, spiritual psychology, and as sanctifying myth. For decades I have been re-reading it and dwelling within it, and I do not know how Lewis could have produced it except as a mystical irruption strained through his mightily equipped intellect and story-telling genius.

For me what followed Perelandra was no footnote, for The Chronicles of Narnia, "The Weight of Glory" (Lewis's central statement of Joy), "Transposition," "The World's Last Night," "Meditation in a Toolshed"(!), and so many other essays, along with Mere Christianity, The Problem of Pain, The Screwtape Letters (for two months I studied Lewis's manuscript in the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library), and eventually the landmark novel Till We Have Faces (his best literary fiction, both he and I agree) — all these and more...
My own first significant encounter with Lewis was Mere Christianity, and it changed the direction of my life. I also started looking for more: books by and about Lewis, books he cited, and so on. With the help of friends, I've visited the Wade Collection at Wheaton College, Lewis's home in Headington, his colleges (Magdalen College in Oxford, and Magdalene College in Cambridge), and supped at the "Bird and Baby" where the Inklings once gathered every week.

Mystical Perelandra: My Lifelong Reading of C.S. Lewis & His Favorite Book is for sale at Amazon on paper and as a Kindle download.

Monday, August 14, 2023

About C.S. Lewis's "Perelandra"

Amid the chaos and suffering of the Second World War, Lewis began writing a sequel to his first science-fiction novel, Out of the Silent Planet (1938). Perelandra picks up the story of Elwin Ransom as he travels to Venus (Perelandra), a planet that, in biblical terms, has not experienced a fall from divine grace. Ransom’s mission is to prevent a satanic figure from luring an Eve-like character into a fatal temptation. In a letter to his friend Sister Penelope, dated November 9, 1941, Lewis explained what he was attempting:
I’ve got Ransom to Venus and through his first conversation with the ‘Eve’ of that world, a difficult chapter. .... I may have embarked on the impossible. This woman has got to combine characteristics which the Fall has put poles apart — she’s got to be in some ways like a Pagan goddess and in other ways like the Blessed Virgin. But if one can get even a fraction of it into words it is worth doing it.
Lewis succeeded beyond his imagination. As James Como argues in Mystical Perelandra: My Lifelong Reading of C.S. Lewis and His Favorite Book, of all Lewis’s books — over 40, in addition to hundreds of essays, poems, lectures, and sermons — no other single work so successfully intertwines his intellectual and imaginative powers while revealing the breadth and depth of the man himself. Como, professor emeritus of rhetoric and public communication at York College (CUNY) and a leading C.S. Lewis scholar, delivers a profound meditation on the enduring importance of Lewis’s novel: He helps us to recognize our desire for the holy. “The power of Perelandra,” Como writes, “derives from the fact that it offers a convincing portrayal of that Truth for which, knowingly or not, we have always longed.” .... (more, perhaps behind a paywall)

Sunday, August 13, 2023

Vintage espionage

I discovered Manning Coles as a teenager. An aunt had Without Lawful Authority in her book collection and I started reading it while visiting. When we were about to leave I begged her to give it to me. She did. I then sought out other books by that author and collected many of them. I return to them often. Manning Coles:
Manning Coles is an English author. It is the pen name used by British writers Cyril Coles and Adelaide Manning.

Cyril was born in 1899 and passed away in 1965. Adelaide was born in 1891 and passed away in 1959. The two of them ended up meeting in Hampshire, where they were neighbors. They both lived in the town of East Meon. Coles had worked in both world wars for the British intelligence service. His neighbor served in the First World War working for the War Office.

Manning Coles is the creator of the Tommy Hambledon series. The series kicked off in 1940 when the debut novel came out. It is titled Drink to Yesterday and is the first story to feature the main character of Tommy Hambledon. He is employed in the Foreign Office. The series did well at the time and has a total of twenty-five novels.

The early books that they wrote tended to have realistic details and a grim tone occasionally. The books that they wrote together under the shared pen name after the war were more light in tone and even whimsical. ....
I particularly enjoyed the World War II books in which Hambleton is contending with Nazis, including, for a time, being among them and reaching positions in their hierarchy. In fact, the second book, A Toast to Tomorrow, isn't a bad fictional explanation of the appeal of the Nazi movement to many Germans after World War I.

I once communicated to PBS Mystery producers recommending a TV series with Michael Kitchen (Foyle's War) as Hambleton. I got no response (I wasn't really surprised) but he would be perfect for the part and I still think it could be good.

A list of the books in the series, all available for Kindle.

Saturday, August 12, 2023

Missing out on education

I taught high school for thirty-six years, retiring in 2005. Most of the time when I dealt with a discipline problem in the classroom or in the halls I expected, and almost always received, support from administrators and parents. Learning isn't compatible with chaos. From "The School-Discipline Disaster":
.... Our schools always have had to and always will need to manage misbehavior, and some students will push any boundary you set for them. But in the past decade, there have been policy changes — decisions to tear down traditional disciplinary structures in schools across the country — that have caused a sharp rise in misbehavior.

The result has been a double blow to education quality: The retreat from discipline has directly degraded the learning atmosphere, sowing chaos and stunting students; and it has demoralized and depressed teachers, pushing them to leave the profession. As student behavior worsens, more teachers leave, the school struggles to pick up the slack, student behavior worsens yet more, and the cycle spirals downward. ....

Few teachers will face violence, and few students will get into serious fights. But a great many students grow impatient because they can’t hear their teacher over the classroom noise. School buildings are full of students who are missing out on an education. Debates about school choice and school funding often receive a lot of attention, but, as influential professor of education John Hattie has pointed out, the most consequential policies relate to in-school factors “such as the climate of the classroom, peer influences, and the lack of disruptive students” (emphasis mine). ....

The two most popular substitutes [for discipline] are “positive behavior interventions and supports,” an approach that emphasizes incentives over consequences, and “restorative justice,” which relies on conflict resolution and discussions with counselors in place of detentions or suspensions.

Undergirding both approaches is a progressive view of human nature. Misbehavior stems not from sin or human imperfection but from broken systems and “root causes.” Johnny doesn’t push Timmy because he’s selfish or still learning to control his anger, the argument runs. He does so because of cultural conflict, hunger, or insufficient emotional support. Kids might need a bag of chips or a hug, but certainly not detention. In each case, the cause of misbehavior is external to the student himself, and so we ought not hold him accountable for his actions.

This view is wrong, both in its theory and in its practical effect. The simple fact is that misbehavior is inherent to children and to humanity in general. We cannot eradicate wrongdoing; we can only disincentivize it and create systems that address it appropriately. Perhaps a student is struggling at home, but punitive discipline and exclusionary practices such as expulsions are still needed to protect and secure the learning of the other students.

Exclusive reliance on nonpunitive approaches communicates to the misbehaving student not high expectations and a belief in his ability to overcome poor circumstances but condescension and a belief that the adults expect nothing better. ....

What rigorous academic research we have on the alternatives to discipline finds them wanting. The RAND Corporation ran two randomized controlled trials on the implementation of restorative justice. On surveys, students reported a deterioration in classroom culture and an increase in bullying. What’s more, there were substantial negative effects on math achievement for middle schoolers and for black students in particular. Though restorative justice is billed as a means to fix the so-called school-to-prison pipeline, the way it fosters disorder and depresses academic achievement could, I believe, exacerbate that problem by making schools worse and thereby rendering them less able to steer students down a better course. .... (more)

Robbie Robertson (1943-2023)

.... Musically, what he achieved with The Band dominates his legacy (though he composed many movie soundtracks later in life, including the one for 1980’s Raging Bull) and was a key subsequent influence on the alt-country genre. But poetically, what Robertson achieved — with such studied craft, imbued with such intelligence and lived empathy that it transcended imitation and became the authentic article — was to touch the purest soul of American myth and legend and bring it to life in his deceptively folksy lyrics and subtle music with such delicacy and preternatural grace that it is only fitting that this most American of songwriters (along with most of his bandmates) was Canadian. ....

The story of how Levon and the Hawks, gigging with little profile around Ontario, managed to become Bob Dylan’s backing band is itself the stuff of cosmic fortune. Dylan’s manager’s secretary (that’s thrice removed, mind you) happened to be from the Toronto area and familiar with the band, and her tip made its way to Dylan when he decided he wanted to go “electric” on tour and needed a working group. The rest is history: the stuff of rock legend, musical awe, and multiple award-winning documentaries (only one of which was directed by Martin Scorsese). The Hawks slowly transformed into The Band over the years 1965–1967; their association with Dylan during the freewheeling and controversial tours of his albums Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde led to their constantly being referred to in press accounts as “the band” behind him....

The critical years spent under Dylan’s tutelage — the so called “Big Pink” era, named for the amusingly painted rural New York practice space that resulted in Dylan’s own legendary Basement Tapes, but which properly began in terms of songwriting and mutual influence during late 1966 — transformed Robertson. The artistic leap he took during this period is almost shocking: The man last seen writing such fare as “Uh Uh Uh” would reemerge in late 1967 after two years of steeping in Bob Dylan’s sensibility and the deepest reaches of the American folk songbook with songs like the Buñuel-influenced “The Weight.” ....

And “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” is the most stunning act of them all, so bracingly successful in its attempt to put you inside the shoes of The Other that I can still remember, as a kid, catching my breath conflictedly over the gut twinge of empathy I felt for people whose defeat was absolutely necessary. Robertson turned to his bandmate Helm (the only American in the group) for some tonal advice and then wrote a song about a no-name dirt-farming soldier from southwestern Virginia who fought for the Confederacy because that’s just the thing you did back then — for family, for honor, for your state — and lost, hard. At every step of the way through this song we know that he had to lose, that it was good and just and proper that the Confederacy and slavery were extinguished. And yet the crushing reality of actual loss — loss of family, loss of pride, loss of self-understanding or any sense of where you will fit in the world to come — is at the forefront. Which is precisely why, when Robertson — with Levon Helm singing his words as only a southerner could — gets to the chorus (“where all the people were singing”) it is a transcendent act of empathy. No words are needed, only a wordless wail, both lullabye and lament, and all for American history’s most deserved losers. .... (more)

Jeffrey Blehar, "Robbie Robertson 1943–2023: The Band’s Leader Finally Rests the Weight," National Review, August10, 2023.